Sunday, June 18, 2017

Congregation, Education, Fellowship (King's college 2017)

It was the type of journey that my wife and I have long ago accepted as part of the ritual pilgrimage owed by us to the kingdom. Perhaps that is a hair on the melodramatic side, but it is something of an accepted fact between us that the collegium events in our kingdom were benchmarks that we should make every effort to attend each year. This year was no different, and as such, we loaded up early the Thursday night before, and then set out Friday night from my place of work (thanks to a friend bringing my wife that far) for the five some-odd hour drive down to the home of a friend who was offering us lodgings for the night, allowing us a fresh start in the morning.

King's College was one of the events that I didn't get to make it down to as often as I would have liked. With it occasionally showing up in the southern region, there were times when it was one of the first casualties of time and fiscal responsibility. Not that I never make it, some of my favorite stories still come from one of my earlier ventures down.  Still, as come has passed, the focus of such trips has also changed from one of an exclusive student to one of teacher and comrade. Much like it's cousin Ansteorrian Heraldic & Scribal Symposium, King's College is as much a chance to network and socialize as it is anything else. And, to be fair, my goal this year was one of teaching, education, and networking.

The first class for me was my newest addition to my library: "Introduction to Ansteorra". This was my attempt to help give a framework of information to new members. As it happened class was scheduled for the main fellowship hall, and my collection of five students shared the space with about thirty people sitting and chatting. We were successful in holding the class, but I felt like the setting wasn't as conducive to conversation and interaction as it could have been. Still, I am not sorry I held it.

Afterwards, I chanced across a familiar face on her way into the same event. Less than a fortnight following her elevation, Deanna was walking in the door just as I was making my exit from the main hall. It wasn't just good to talk to her again, but it wad good to talk with her as a friend, and without the weight of a job to do hanging over my shoulders. Not to suggest for a second that I even slightly regretted accepted the request to herald her into her Laureling, but part of success is the ability to look back at it and enjoy it for the accomplishment it was.

Mistress Deanna de la Penna at her elevation, two weeks before.
Photo compliments of  Master Caelin on Andrede
With permission of Caelin and Deanna. 
Deanna has always been one of the "kind spirits" in my circle, a pleasant person with a pleasant outlook on life, the type of calm a chaos junky like me enjoys being around ever so often. We only spoke in passing, her on her way up a small flight of steps, I on my way down the same flight. It's not that there was anything momentous about the conversation, but I write about it here because I feel it's important that people understand the value of a "kind spirit". Is there any word, or sentence or even conversation in my friendship with Deanna that is somehow moments or epic? no. But would my life be a lesser story without her influence on its narrative? Yes, I wholeheartedly believe it would be.

The event broke for lunch at this point, and we all went our separate ways, my wife, myself and our host travelling to a local Italian eatery. The waitress there was fascinated with our garb, and we made sure to leave her with a SCA business card.

My next classes weren't for some hours after lunch's conclusion, so I set out to wander the halls and enjoy what conversation I could. I had looked over the class list already, and would continue to do so throughout the day, but for a myriad of reasons, and some questions of fatigue, I didn't feel up to attending any of the offered classes just then.

In something of a happy coincidence, the same length of steps from where I had spoken with Deanna was stage for another figure when I walked by some time later. Tall, and stately in a way truly unique to his six-foot-plus frame, Duke Adb al-Mahdi Jamal ibn Hakim, was dressed in his typical Moorish splendor, sharing a laugh with friends when I walked up to him that afternoon. if someone had a write a thesis statement about our resident Moorish duke, it would be that his cool confidence was perfectly counterbalanced by an inherent humility, and the whole package pivoted on an innate drive to make others happy. For all of his regal trappings, Mahdi was about as dignified as a high-school birthday boy, with an expressive face more likely to smile than anything else. Nearly every other sentence I have heard from the man is some empathetic recognition of something said to him a moment before, what has to be a reflexive pattern of engagement and encouragement at this point in his life. In every encounter with the man over my two decades here, each conversation was treated such that, regardless of our respective ranks, we were always met as equals, two men linked by a love of fun stories and lives that can only be called larger than the sum of their parts.

Duke Adb al-Mahdi Jamal ibn Hakim from spring coronation , 2017
Photo compliments of  Stephen Blakele
With permission of Stephen and Mahdi

The conversation that day was epic in its simplicity. Madhi was still very much coming down off of the unexpected high from his Lioning two weeks before, and even as he stood there, a lion's medallion handing off its mantling on his chest, the majority of his conversation revolved around illustrating how amazing his friends were, and how humbled he was for the ongoing recognition. A man of extraordinary energy and enthusiasm, nothing better defines him than his drive to lite others up with his good spirit. All that being said, he also brings an extraordinary career to any conversation, and the ability to talk about as many battles as he has been in, or camp fires that he has been around adds depth to any exchange.

This day we swapped stories about Ansteorrian 30th Year and some of the heraldic submissions Madhi and I had both seen, as well as bringing up some of the frequent ruminations about "the militant arm of the college of heralds". We shifted the conversation about membership numbers, and recruitment issues ever closer to the forefront of modern SCA policy. Every word out of his mouth punctuated with an expressive face that spelled out his thoughts on a subject before the words could be shaped by his mouth.

My second class of the day, held close to the end, was my Girdlebook class. I had discovered girdle books at Kings College some time ago when they were handed out as site tokens for instructors. The first was a slip cover for a small marble notebook. I later expanded on the idea, making a larger, more durable book for storing my cell phone. When that got stuck in a car door, I finally assembled another one, this one with a fake leather cover and metal hardware. My class is the product of historical research and some soap-boxing I have taken to doing lately about people pulling out their model phones while at events, and worse yet, while they are in court. The class was well attended, with, as I recall, over a dozen people attending, and paying close attention, asking questions and swapping stories and feedback.

The final class of the day, starting at four, wasn't a class at all. Rather it was a roundtable I described as "a chance for voice heralds to sit down and just talk for a few". More specifically, this was a chance for younger or prospective heralds to ask questions of the more experienced core of heralds.

Master ‎Brian O'hUilliam (left) and Master Alden Drake (right)
Both photos taken from Facebook (I *might* have asked permission)

I've known Brian and Alden for longer than I really care to try and remember. Though I think my first real interaction with Alden was when he was Star principle herald and I was interviewing for Northern Regional herald Brian, on the other hand, is a southern voice herald, and student to Master Modius (another personality I know well) whom I have crossed paths with on only a few occasions, though we sometimes meet like a pair of rams trying to see who's head in harder.

Alden has always been, at least in my conversations, the quit, reasonable voice in a room. The guy who puts his hand up and says "you know, that guy over there just said something interesting." I'd imagine he has as full a spectrum of emotions as any of us, but his demeanor in my presence has always been one of calm determination.

Brian, (again much like his mentor, Modius), is an intense, focused personality. His words are not just chosen, but sculpted, and if you listen to him talk, its clear that where many of us would tolerate, or perhaps just survive administrative settings, Brian thrives in them, much like my mundane self did in the chaos of an emergency situation. It's tempting at times to unflatteringly call him a policy wonk dismissively, but to do so ignores the fact that he doesn't talk to hear himself talk, he talks to accomplish things, and those things, more often than not, as real world with tangible consequences. He's a rare man, able to display the type of stoic determination at times that I would more often associate with a soldier or warrior.

As to the hour-long meeting, the conversation was well attended, with heralds and non-heralds, new and veteran in attendance. It was a good roundtable, actually, with some interesting questions being asked. One young herald asked is things overhear from other heralds has any sort of expectation of copyright, or the like. Another asked about the roles of the herald at an event, and who they work for, also who seeks out heralds for what activity. That lead to a fascinating (and expected) conversation about differences in how groups manage their own event. I really do want to call out Alden for reminding us that talk of what heralds are needed where is something that should be talked about earlier rather than later. I also pointed out that approaching a subject from the standpoint of "we need a herald" will play into the conversations of detractors who don't approve of voice heraldry at events. The subject of information flow, communication, and timeliness, things that do resonate with event stewards more often than not.

The interplay between seasoned heralds and the younger crowd (not to mention two non-heralds who also attended and contributed as well) was encouraging and educational for all of us I felt. It wasn't epic, or earth moving, but being a good herald isn't about being larger than life all the time. It can be about the little conversations, the hints, the tips, the words of reassurance between comrades.

I'm glad for the classes I taught at King's collect this year, but I'm more grateful for the chance to reconnect with friends, old and new, and the ability to build up the network of people, heralds and not, who help make my SCA career as extraordinary as it is. And also, I'd like to home that in turn, I am able to do the same to others as our paths cross each meetings and each event.
His Lordship Ivo Blackhawk
Kingdom of Ansteorra
"Long Live the King!"

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

101 Reasons

I hit a point about ten years ago, give or take, when I was ready to quit the SCA. There wasn't some catastrophic fight or major drama this time. I just woke up one morning, not wanting to go to a meeting, or attend an event. It wasn't some temporary lethargy. This was a persistent, confident fatigue, like the joy of the game had finally drifted away. As I crawled out of bed that day and climbed into the shower, my mind dwelled on all of the mistakes that had pot marked my SCA career so far.

The misunderstandings, the bullying, the taunting. It felt like reliving my middle school career all over again. People I once called friends were now distant, some openly mocking of our differences. I'd been called "a petty little bitch" and "pussy" to my face more times by members of the fighting community in a single season than I think I had been called in two years of middle school. What "friends" I could recall that morning were few, far between, and none of them really inspired confidence. I was once again a confirmed member of the looser's club. mocked or ignored for things that I never actually said, but oh "it's something Ivo would say, so it must be true." For some reason that seemed to carry with it more weight and credibility than any flavor of denial I could ever give, and that was assuming I was ever asked my side of things. All too often I was not.

I probably washed my hair twice that morning. It's something I do when I'm distracted, usually not noticing until I went to rinse my hair and notice the shampoo suds already on the walls. I would just roll my eyes and hope that the extra scrubbing helped with my dry skin.

I think I've been called every name in the book at least once. But that wasn't what killed me most of the times. What used to just hack me off was when I would work my ass off at an event. I'd help stack chairs, or do dishes, or load trailers on Sundays, good, honest, hard word, the type that leaves salt stains on your shirt from all the perspiration. Did I ever get thanked? Sometimes, but honestly, I wasn't in it for recognition. So, that wasn't what made me mad. No, what made me had was that a week later, I would arrive late at some project, or just as they were wrapping up something, and help with the last tent pole or something really insignificant. You know, one last drop in the bucket, the type of penny-any bullshit that anyone can do. Then, someone would turn around and say "Good to see you finally helping out." Yeah, those words, one flavor or another, at least a half dozen times in two years. I remember when our resident centurion said it to me while I was hefting a ridge pole over my shoulder. I more than seriously contemplated taking his head off with it when his back was turned. Well, I'm not in jail, or on death row so you can guess what impulse win that little skirmish.

When I was drying myself off, the whole thing just played over and over and over again in my mind, like the credits on some 60s epic movie. It was a never ending list of every screw up I had ever legitimately done, or been wrongfully accused of. they just hung there over me, like lead bricks pulling down on my shoulders. Somewhere in there, I decided that there were a hundred reasons to just quit. I don't completely know why, but a round number like a hundred just sounded good. I went back to my room to get dressed, more than seriously wondering what I would do with my newfound free time when I quit the SCA and suddenly had even less than no life.

I don't remember when it crossed my mind, if it was before or after I got my blue jeans on, but some odd piece of logic came to me just then. if there were 100 reasons to quit, to walk away, to break off all ties, were there as many reasons to stay? It was an academic question, but still, the type of thing I liked to chew on.

Were there 100 reasons to stay?

I remember honestly counting just then. one, then two, then three...

Five, nine, seventeen...

Thirty-five. I remember that I got stuck on that for a while. Maybe, I reasoned, this was my logical side telling me that there really weren't enough good reasons to stay.

Then a name came to me. A man who at one time compared me to "a diamond in the rough".

HL Alarich Von Thorn, my first liege lord.

Then another name.

Lord Facon Du Prey, rapier fighter, friend, and fun spirit I knew from my times heralding the rapier fighters.

And then another, and another.

Then two more, and then twenty. Faces without names, voices without faces. People only known to me by a thank-you, or a smile.

I remember counting that day. I remember counting from one to one hundred.

The sales were even, and I felt the moment of uncertainty as the decision was no longer out of my hands, but felt like a ton of weight on my shoulders. Did I stay, and face the same bullshit? Or did I walk away and find some other pursuit?

Then one more name came to me. Honestly, it could have been anyone. It could have been any person from any time in the society. I assure you that the name was random, but not insignificant.

The name belonged to a man who welcomed me into a conversation, offered me a chair, and asked me how I was doing. He shared a laugh with me, and spoke with me, rather than to me. A man who's great status and stature were as distinct as they were visually powerful. But, the same could be said for his friendly demeanour and encouraging attitude.

Perhaps it could have been anyone who just happened to be that hundred and first person. But in my case, it was (then) count Mahdi.

So, feeling the scales of the decision shift with the silent weight of an iceberg, I walked out of the house that day not contemplating an exit from the society but wondering what I was going to bring to the next project's night.

Now, as easy as it is to sit back an enjoy this narrative for what it is on the surface, I ask you not to leave it at that. For if you carry this thought, this tidbit of philosophy forward to its logical conclusion, it doesn't head on a high note or a low note. Rather, it ends with a question.

"Are you someone's hundredth reason to quit, or are you reason one hundred and one to stay?"

His Lordship Ivo Blackhawk
Kingdom of Ansteorra
"Long Live the King!"

Friday, May 5, 2017

The SCA is writing its own historical fiction (and why that's okay)

SCA publication release form for this article if located here.

As a writer and reader, one of the genre's I have the strongest emotional reaction to is historical fiction. Whether it's trying to slog my way through a  Harry Turtledove novel, or watching S. M. Sterling rewrite the ancient world, historical fiction novels have duel responsibility of having to know the actual history before deviating from it. And regardless of your opinion of historical (or alternate history) fiction, the one thing that can be said for the heavy-hitters in the field if that they bring hardcore academic credentials to the game, long before they put pen to paper for their works.

As a twenty year SCA member, I feel that there is something to be taken from this approach as we flirt with the very poorly defined grey area between LARPing and historical reenactment. The first thing we need to understand is that our game, which is the framework for almost all of what we do, is founded in fiction. The first SCA meeting was a costume party with some fantasy characters in attendance, and our own royal structure, as defined by society law, is ahistorical to ranks and policies in Europe from the time we claim to represent. Everything from how we select officers to what powers the crown has is little removed from a game children might play in their spare time.

So, how do we differentiate ourselves from the LARPing community, and how do be answer the scrutiny of the more staunch reenactment communities we exist alongside?

And before I move forward, let me clarify the importance of these two benchmarks.

 Live Action Role Play is on the rise in the US, gaining popularity and acceptance. It engages the aspects of the human mind previously reserved for fantasy book and movies. They gather in general seclusion, usually preferring their own company and not to become a public spectacle. Alternately, more rigorous reenactment groups, specifically American Civil War reenactors, strike for visual accuracy and personal research that is not only strongly academic but hold close personal relevance to the US as part of its history. These groups appeal to the every-day outside world to come and see history come to life before them. Both of these groups have overlap with SCA interests, and both represent examples of both what we want to accomplish, and what we want to avoid. Also, both have strong relevance in modern society, though for almost opposite reasons.

Most importantly, how can we call ourselves any sort of historical group, let alone an educational one, when our structure is as far departed from reality as it is?

I have heard people say "we recreate the best parts of the middle ages," but always thought that an imperfect answer as it was too vague for me. Most importantly, it was subjective of what people thought were "the best" parts.

For me, the answer is, literally, staring us in the face here. Rather than say "the best parts", or "what we want to do" when we talk about our game, what we should say is far, far more potent towards our actual goals.

We are a group of medieval enthusiasts who pull fragments of history togeather with arbitrary rules in order to both inspire and administer ourselves. But what is vital to this is that we understand where we deviate from history.

I have no illusions about how historically accurate my garb is when compared to my chosen culture and timeframe. And yes, I am investing time and money into upgrading my kit so that I do start to look more historically accurate. But for our purposes here, that's not the important thing. An authentic reenactor would never be seen wearing my costume. And a LARPer would most likely not give a thought to historical accuracy. In our case, or rather, in my case, somewhere in between, my personal, goal is not absolute accuracy, but the ability to say where I deviate from history.

No, the hat isn't strictly historical, I had the design modified to give me extra protection from the sun, for health considerations.

The shirt isn't even remotely English, but I do know what I would be wearing, and I do know where this design comes from. It would not be implausible, or even hard for an English merchant or travelling gentry to purchase this style if he were in Italy, or southern France.

No, the belt isn't really accurate for me, in fact, it would be considered old-fashioned even amongst the old men of my day. But as a SCA-ism, it works and it offers me a place to put my personal items. I am looking towards a more accurate, late period belt style. My belt is much, much more typical of the 11th century men.

I don't wear leggings, and I don't like or wear cod pieces, just deal with that. But, the legwear of the day was generally fitted, but not skin tight for men, so the visual appearance of my garb in that respect is not terribly far off the mark.

No, absolutely nothing about my footwear is period. However, I am a heavy-set, six foot, three-inch tall man who needs to support of modern insoles with proper arch support. As a working herald in the SCA who walks as much as I do, this is just a non-negotiable.

My current messenger bag is about 75% accurate, with the black plastic parts and adjustable strap being the major deviations, of course. None the less, the design, fabric type, and overall use are spot on for any number of locations in Europe across the whole of the "middle ages".

While there is no record to support that an Englishman of my timeframe ever specifically  lived the life I claim to have lived, or regularly donned the clothing that I have now, actual historical records of the day show that the English did travel across Europe for political, military and economic reasons across most of the 14th, 15th, and 16th centuries. As with any travellers, they tended to adopt the clothing of the local area in all but the most formal ceremonial situations.

The life I live in the SCA is a fiction. But it is a fiction built on facts, and so long as I can remember, and reference those facts, I feel confident that I am, indeed, contributing to the educational mandate that is part of the society.

For us who balance history and budget (not to mention time), its not about getting it perfect out the door, it about being who we are, and what we want to emulate when someone asks the question.

And to be clear, part of what I have seen a shift in the society over the past two decades is a trend away from conversations like this, where we learn about each other's cultures and interests and influences and how they relate to our character or even our real selves. I feel that this type of conversation is part of not only want helps us learn more about the society and ourselves, but also helps lay the legwork for personal growth both in the society and within ourselves as individuals.

But even as we ask these questions, the fact of the matter is that we as a society will never have the high levels of historical authenticity set (and at times mandated) by other organisations. However, if we consider our actions here with the same metric that historical fiction authors use before they pen their intricate tales of what might have been, we can see that the idea of knowing real history is what allows us to better create our own fictional tales.

His Lordship Ivo Blackhawk
Kingdom of Ansteorra
"Long Live the King!"